Yesterday was Adorno’s birthday [peace be upon him!]. And, while it remains enduringly fashionable among left-wing types to dismiss Adorno, and no less The Frankfurt School, in a single remonstrating gesture, it also remains a verifiable fact that few bother to engage him from beyond the miasma of elitism, essentialism and arrogance which our spectacular age has mounted on his diagnoses of culture. The general response to his work bespeaks a fear of raising the patina of intellectualism over praxis, of alienating popular culture, of subverting reasoned criticism to shirk the unconscionable biddings of political immediatisms where art has lost its frame of coherence and has become yet another product for popular consumption- a respite with sound and fury but no signification- yet such was never Adorno’s own project.
Among his copious folios of work there is one particular stream in which his thought permeated the very heart of the matter, and though he may have fallen off his hobby horse now and then into the pits of assumption and error, his reconnoitering remains exemplary in its scope, perspicacity and endurance. His critique of the nexus between artistic expression and the cultural trends that it capitulates to is damning and remains all too painfully pertinent; when we admit to ourselves and others that music means no more than entertainment, which may be as it may, do we really escape the indictment of abandoning the task of our own escape from the strictures of oppressive culture? It is highly suspect. Among the basic axioms of his procedure, Adorno gave special place to the unique recursive structure of thought applied to thought, one expects no less from a dialectician: he posited that a deep dissatisfaction with one’s culture presumed an immersion worth the name into its substance. Only those who partake of its products, paradoxically, are allowed the luxury to see in it the detritus of their conscience, the dregs of their resistance waylaid by the trite melodies of popular dance music and as they are struck petrific by the entrancing thaumaturgy of film. Today, were he around, he would most probably be goaded into citing himself- Simon Critchley calls self-citation an act of narcissism, but I digress- and pronounce upon us our dishonest evasion of our predicament. It is not that merely our desires are stifled by the culture that enables us our habituated libertinage but even their symptoms are effaced by the apparatus of “…a lavish display of light air and hygiene…[produced] by the gleaming transparency of rationalised big business…” (Adorno 2005, p. 58).
Our complicity with contemporaneous conditions makes us culpable for its failings, for the slippages of desire and damage incurred by acceding to the despots’ machinery of causeless effects. If indeed art were produced in vacua there would be no need for its justification but only since we are swarmed by it in a reciprocal configuration of desire versus desire we owe more than wrung hands to its integral form. It behooves us to draw strength from this involvement “…to dismiss it” in so far as it fails to arouse our sympathetic epiphany, our rising beyond the material conditions of the commoditised world to reclaim the tenacity of despoiled, alienated and thereby mystified desire. “What is true of the instinctual life is no less true of the intellectual: the painter or composer forbidding himself as trite this or that combination of colours or chords, the writer wincing at banal or pedantic verbal configurations, reacts so violently because layers of himself are drawn to them. Repudiation of the present cultural morass presupposes sufficient involvement in it to feel it itching in one’s finger-tips…” (Adorno 2005, § 8. p. 29).
The import of his critical project would not have us wash our hands off art’s lifeblood at the scarce font of immediatisms accommodating the brutality of indifferent social systems. The mystical and poetical flourishes most contemporary artists employ to exonerate themselves from the duty of explaining their motivation only serves as a foil for the abject regression of the artistic self, which has miscarried all artistic intent before it can strive to redeem itself by its own toil. The artistic subject removed from ipseity at home in his milieu, thrown into the being of the market system which homogenises all in the currency of its one-all, has become a blight to the possibility of a conscience that has power to elevate art above human conditions and, so in due inversion, the possibility of also man’s elevation above the artefacts of [a]historical conditioning. “… [Herein] lies music’s [indeed, all arts’?] theological aspect. What music [art] says is a proposition at once distinct and concealed. Its idea is the form (Gestalt) of the name of God. It is demythologised prayer, freed from the magic of making anything happen, the human attempt, futile, as always, to name the name itself, not to communicate meanings” (Adorno 2002, p. 114).
The logic of the day, which makes so much of its clarity, has naively adopted this perverted notion of everyday speech. Vague expression permits the hearer to imagine whatever suits him and what he already thinks in any case. Rigorous formulation demands unequivocal comprehension, conceptual effort, to which people are deliberately disencouraged, and imposes on them in advance of any content a suspension of all received opinions, and thus an isolation that they violently resist (Adorno § 64, p. 101).
So, briefly, why read Adorno today? Because, it is imperative to act against the reactionaries, though they be ourselves. If we say too much has happened that has incontestably altered the course of art and its equation with consumption, thought and its relation to things are we not merely begging more reasons for surrendering to the beast that is already astride us? Read Adorno because, precisely because, he angers you with his obstinacy, his clinging to a hopeful differentiation from the abject form of alterity imposed upon popular consciousness. To fight the abstractions which generalise the self, artistic and otherwise, Adorno’s critical apparatus remains a worthy weapon, -though it sometimes is a knife all blade- what hurt is spared the self which cannot define art but can seek out a hadron’s theotechny? Wherein rests the aura of artistic inspiration; wherein the magic of its immaculate conception; wherein the titanic moment of its articulation and production through the very engines from which we derive our existence, let us inquire therein of the precise psychical automatisms that move us thusly to procure for its occult, atemporal archaeology the produce of our bodily culture, our arts. If our art is all sensuousness and corporeality what then is the mystery of its immaculate inspiration, how can we rest assured in the rejection of all inquiry and criticism of its material epigenesis? To do so is dishonesty shown home, in ourselves, in a world where selcouth artistic essences threaten the very existence of the thing itself; the world where art is two birds in a bush and we are left with age-old platitudes in our hand, kneeling before the disembodied flash which animates it with a cataclysm. In the end, to mystify the moment of our deepest impulses with the rhetoric of romance or respectable forgetfulness is to disavow the pompous claim history lays upon our culture: justify yourself despite your existence. Why must rational consciousness coil itself like an illusion, effacing its discernable origins, if it comes ascendant on Dickinson’s nimble winged hope? The emancipatory potential of art lies in the understanding of its brutal prehistory and natal experience, which must be unearthed and come to terms with on its own terms; thought, in order to be made intelligible and not mystical or sophistically narcissistic, must break free its jaw from its own tail. Adorno invites us, despite the neutralising haze of our critical conscience that settles itself on his work, to recreate the topology of desire and study the imbrications and scarifications lathed upon it as so many warts only so we may excise them now, though it is too late. For, we are moving in the circle of unreason so long as we attribute to some divine preordainment the subordination of art to both commerce and magic, the repression of self to the bad infinity of the body which speculates about the end of history. The end of history situates itself in our aeon, and we must resist becoming anachronisms in this inauthentic becoming. Else, why art at all?
Theodor Adorno. Trans. Gillespie, S. Ed. Leppert, R. “Music, Language and Composition (1956)”. Essays on Music: Theodore W. Adorno. USA: University of California, 2002. Print.
Theodor Adorno. Trans. Jephcott, E., F., N. Minima Moralia: Reflections from Damaged Life. UK: Verso, 2005. Print.
I must admit my Wittgensteinian inclinations make me wonder if Hegel’s so elastic because it causes most of the problems, we have to reconcile even when answering other real problems in Kant (such as the subject, object distinction). Hegel seems to be a set of nearly infinite coherent readings that are mutually contradictory, and that is a problem. Emerson’s Transcendentalism is Hegelian. Spengler’s deterministic history is Hegelian. Engel’s and Lenin’s are Hegelian while denouncing him. Giovanni Gentile is Hegelian. Many of the early structuralists are Hegelian. The Young Hegelians are obviously. The Right Hegelians are consistent with Hegel and the philosophy of the right. So one is left with so many coherent readings that a mutually exclusive, one cannot feel that what is going is trying to reconcile a system that has fundamental ambiguities which remain answered only in light of their own assumptions and lead to many incoherent answers when taken together.
Does that mean that Hegel is wrong? No, but it seems almost impossible to tell which reading to privilege and how not to hide heuristic biases in the readings. In many ways, many of the problems here don’t necessarily seem solvable and the politics implied in Hegel range dramatically as well. I will give Hegel a break, but I am not sure that this is something one can easily reconcile. Is Wittgenstein right that is essentially a language problem? Or in the elasticity of family resemblances within that thought? I don’t know.
I do know that I have less answers on Hegel the more I read him and then read how others have read him. If he is a total system, the central mystification is if the form and content of the system must be assumed for it work, then how do so many people come to so many conclusions? It is clear though, Hegel thought his own work was a total system.
“ethos anthropoi daimon” – Heraclitus
“If the faith of the Christian Church has grown weary and has forfeited its worldly dominion, the dominance of its God has not yet disappeared. Rather, its form has been disguised and its claims have hardened beyond recognition. In place of the authority of God and Church looms the authority of conscience, or the dominion of reason, or the God of historical progress, or the social instinct.”
- Martin Heidegger
“Universalistic egalitarianism, from which sprang the ideals of freedom and a collective life in solidarity, the autonomous conduct of life and emancipation, the individual morality of conscience, human rights and democracy, is the direct legacy of the Judaic ethic of justice and the Christian ethic of love. This legacy, substantially unchanged, has been the object of continual critical appropriation and reinterpretation. To this day, there is no alternative to it. And in light of the current challenges of a postnational constellation, we continue to draw on the substance of this heritage. Everything else is just idle postmodern talk.”
“I don’t feel nervous, but the religious co-opting of my work exists. It exists, however, for profound reasons. It is not only the result of my reference to Paul. It exists because when your work concerns the relation between truth and an event you are necessarily exposed to a religious interpretation. You cannot avoid it. You are exposed because you are no longer confined to the strictly empirical or ontological field. You cannot reduce truth to grammatical correctness or to an experimental correlation between languages and facts. You have to understand that there is something in the becoming of a truth that exceeds the strict possibilities of the human mind. There is something in truth that is beyond our immediate capacities. In a new truth there is something that is beyond the established differences between languages and facts. This is what the example of Galileo shows us. So there is always somebody with religious convictions who is saying, ‘I am interested in your work because of your correlation of something like a radical event, a newness of life, with truth.’” – Alain Badiou
“The ascetic version faces a further difficulty: once we undermine foundations, we have undermined any foundational argument against the old God. That binds the hands of atheism, preventing any knock-out atheistic blow, thereby leaving the barn door open to religious faith. Kant was being a perfect Pauline-Lutheran Protestant when he said that he found it necessary to delimit knowledge in order to make room for faith. The “difficulty,” in short, is that atheism needs foundationalism to cut off the escape route of faith, but foundationalism reenacts and repeats theism. Either concede our irreducible finitude, which leaves the infinite inaccessible and a possible object of faith, or somehow scramble over to the side of the infinite and cut off the escape route of faith, which runs the opposite risk of playing God. That explains “post-secularism,” the postmodern “return of religion”: once modernity is delimited and the metaphysical gunfire over God subsides, a postmodern version of classical religious faith is free to raise its hoary head. This “colonisation” of modern atheism by religion has particularly gotten Watkin’s goat.” – John D. Caputo on Christopher Watkin.
But it is Wilde’s views on religion that are so interesting in connection to the themes of politics and belief. Where others might have faith in the unseen and intangible, the great unknown or whatever, Wilde confesses a more aesthetic fidelity to “What one can touch and look at.” His, then, is a sensuous religion. He goes on to make an extraordinary pronouncement that describes the dilemma I would like to confront in this book:
When I think of religion at all, I feel as if I would like to found an order for those who cannot believe: the Confraternity of the Faithless, one might call it, where on an altar, on which no taper burned, a priest, in whose heart peace had no dwelling, might celebrate with unblessed bread and a chalice empty of wine. Everything to be true must become a religion. And agnosticism should have its ritual no less than faith.
It is the phrase, “Everything to be true must become a religion” that is most striking. What might “true” mean? Wilde is clearly not alluding to the logical truth of propositions or the empirical truths of natural science. I think that he is using “true” in a manner close to its root meaning of “being true to,” an act of fidelity that is kept alive in the German word treu: loyal or faithful. This is perhaps its meaning in Jesus’s phrase when he said, “I am the way, the truth and the life” (John 14:6). Religious truth is like troth, the experience of fidelity where one is affianced and then betrothed. What is true, then, is an experience of faith, and this is as true for agnostics and atheists as it is for theists. Those who cannot believe still require religious truth and a framework of ritual in which they can believe. At the core of Wilde’s remark is the seemingly contradictory idea of the faith of the faithless and the belief of unbelievers, a faith which does not give up on the idea of truth, but transfigures its meaning.
I think this idea of a faith of the faithless is helpful in addressing the dilemma of politics and belief. On the one hand, unbelievers still seem to require an experience of belief; on the other hand, this cannot—for reasons I will explore below—be the idea that belief has to be underpinned by a traditional conception of religion defined by an experience or maybe just a postulate of transcendent fullness, namely the God of metaphysics or what Heidegger calls “onto-theo-logy.” The political question—which will be my constant concern in the experiments that follow—is how such a faith of the faithless might be able to bind together a confraternity, a consorority or, to use Rousseau’s key term, an association. If political life is to arrest a slide into demotivated cynicism, then it would seem to require a motivating and authorizing faith which, while not reducible to a specific context, might be capable of forming solidarity in a locality, a site, a region—in Wilde’s case a prison cell.
This faith of the faithless cannot have for its object anything external to the self or subject, any external, divine command, any transcendent reality. As Wilde says: “But whether it be faith or agnosticism, it must be nothing external to me. Its symbols must be of my own creating.”
We appear to be facing a paradox. On the one hand, to be true everything must become a religion, otherwise belief lacks (literally) credibility or authority. Yet, on the other hand, we are and have to be the authors of that authority. The faith of the faithless must be a work of collective self-creation where I am the smithy of my own soul and where we must all become soul-smiths, as it were.
The apparent paradox is resolved through Wilde’s interpretation of the figure of Christ. In his 1891 essay “The Soul of Man under Socialism,” Wilde describes Christ as a “beggar who has a marvelous soul,” a “leper whose soul is divine.” Christ is a “God realizing his perfection through pain.” Wilde’s captivity might, then, best be understood as an extended imitatio of Christ, where he becomes who he is through the experience of suffering. It is through suffering and suffering alone that one becomes the smithy of one’s soul. Wilde’s suffering in Reading Gaol is thus the condition for his self-realization as an artist. At the core of Wilde’s understanding of Christ is an almost Schopenhauerian metaphysics of suffering: “For the secret of life is suffering. It is what is hidden behind everything.”8 The truth of art, according to Wilde’s expressivist romantic aesthetics, is the incarnation of the inwardness of suffering in outward form, the expression of deep internality in externality. It is here that Wilde finds an intimate connection between the life of the artist and the life of Christ. – Simon Critchley
“Thinking accomplishes the relation of Being to the essence of man. It does not make or cause the relation. Thinking brings this relation to Being solely as something handed over to it from Being. Such offering consists in the fact that in thinking Being comes to language. Language is the house of Being. In its home man dwells. Those who think and those who create with words are the guardians of this home. Their guardianship accomplishes the manifestation of Being insofar as they bring the manifestation to language and maintain it in language through their speech. Thinking does not become action only because some effect issues from it or because it is applied. Thinking acts insofar as it thinks.” – Martin Heidegger
To be sure, Protestant theology presents a different, supposedly unpolitical doctrine, conceiving of God as the “wholly other,” just as in political liberalism the state and politics are conceived of as the “wholly other.” We have come to recognize that the political is the total, and as a result we know that any decision about whether something is unpolitical is always a political decision, irrespective of who decides and what reasons are advanced. This also holds for the question whether a particular theology is a political or an unpolitical theology. – Carl Schmitt
There is nothing more natural than to consider everything as starting from oneself, chosen as the center of the world; one finds oneself thus capable of condemning the world without even wanting to hear its deceitful chatter. – Guy Debord
The one intelligible theory of the universe is that of objective idealism, that matter is effete mind, inveterate habits becoming physical laws (Peirce, CP 6.25).
So-called systems have often been characterized and challenged in the assertion that they abrogate the distinction between good and evil, and destroy freedom. Perhaps one would express oneself quite as definitely, if one said that every such system fantastically dissipates the concept existence. … Being an individual man is a thing that has been abolished, and every speculative philosopher confuses himself with humanity at large; whereby he becomes something infinitely great, and at the same time nothing at all. – Kirkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript to the Philosophical Fragments
There has been a move in philosophical circles since Marx, and most manifestly in Zizek, has been to take Hegel’s idealism, which is predicated on a formal necessary on the material being less real than the ideal form (an argument one sees as early as Plato), and this is key to the Hegel’s assertion in the longer logic: the essential assertion that contingencies and materiality not fully “real” because they depend on other finite qualities to determine them, but Kirkegaard inverts the maxim on the absolute positing the whole as an illusion. However, the organism of the human person is, unique literally, a multiple totality of systems which are not all connected.
Something that has occurred to me is that Kirkegaard’s attack on Hegel was right, but wrong about the problem. While we cannot ascribe our materialism, Marx turning Hegel on his head as the saying goes still fundamentally accepts the Hegelian totality but later Marxists (using the base/suprastructure metaphor) posits ideas as epiphenomenal from the stand-point of production, but then accept Hegelian terminology (as it required to see how Marx uses Hegelian abstraction in the structure of Das Kapital). This is a problem, and it’s one at the core of misreading of Marx and vulgar economicism.
Instead, perhaps, we can realize something crucial: The ideal is the form of matter, not just our comprehension of it. However, instead of consigning the “absolute” or the material to the less the than real, we can take them as an epistemological dialectic–the totality always breaks down into oppositions but the oppositions give form to the totality. The differentiation makes the undifferentiated comprehensible because both exist in our understanding of formal material. Mater isn’t stuff: it is the manifestation of energy, and energy here has its strict standard model of physics definition. In other words, this is not a case of the contradictions that are sublated, but the manifestation of a plurality that is also a totality. It is the point of entrance which prioritizes either the total or the finite. It is related to the locus of understanding the emergence of a system, but a system is always, by definition, a reification of relations. A necessary reification to give one an entry way into contingency and necessity.
So I take heat from a obscure metaphysical note from Peirce: what is meant by an effete or inactive mind? What is the point or emergence? How does this effect our view of politics relationship to the culture? Or both essentially reification of the ecologies, which is itself a reification of social relations? Is there actually a different from objective idealism and formal materialism?
I don’t yet know.